“I am the true vine and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it, that it may bear more fruit” (I John 15:1-2).
When the Master Gardener arrives at His vineyard, everyone sits up and takes notice. What follows might be painful. The branches which accomplish nothing are about to be lopped off, and the branches which bear good fruit can expect to be pruned.
None of this is without pain.
Yesterday, I went through the cuties–those little mandarin oranges we buy in a pack of two dozen or so at the grocery–and threw out several. We had gotten behind in eating them and one had gone bad, then was affecting (and infecting) those around it. To preserve ten, I threw out five.
In urging friends and family to eat more fruit, I remind them they should go into it knowing that sometimes they will have to throw out good fruit they allowed to spoil. It’s part of the price of keeping apples and pears, oranges and strawberries, bananas and blueberries in the house.
When I was a teenager, my dad set out several grape vines and pear trees in the small field behind our farmhouse. Even though he was a lifelong coal miner–who came from a long line of coal miners–Dad had married into a farm family and took to the life of a farmer with zest. Dad loved the farm, enjoyed working in the field and growing things, and was dead-set on making sure his six children grew up with an appreciation for the farm life. We did.
It was puzzling the first few times Dad took his shears and cut back the vines after the grape season had ended. It looked to this kid as though he had killed them. Sure enough, next year, there they would be–green and lush and loaded with delicious grapes.
Our Lord had something this in mind when He made two troublesome statements:
1) “Every branch in me that does not bear fruit, (the Father) takes away.”
2) “Every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it.”
I call these pronouncements “troublesome” because the reality seems painful to us. He sets aside and ‘takes away” the barren members of His body, and whittles away at the excess wood on the fruitful members. Neither is any fun.
I. What happens to the barren Christian?
In his New Testament commentary on this passage, Charles Ryrie said, “The word ‘takes away’ may mean this literally (as in ‘remove’ in 11:39) and would therefore be a reference to the physical death of fruitless Christians (I Corinthians 11:30), or it may mean lift up (as ‘picked up’ in 8:59) which would indicate that the vinedresser encourages and makes it easier for the fruitless believer, hoping he will respond and begin to bear fruit.”
F. F. Bruce says, among other things, Jesus may have been referring to Judas, who would be “taken away” from the disciples because of his barrenness.
Dr. Bruce says, “(In this text) There are plays on words in Greek that cannot easily be reproduced in English. ‘He removes’ is airei and “He prunes” is kathairei.”
In either case–whether the Lord merely sets aside the barren church member or decides to “take him home” (which would surely leave a lot of empty churches were He to start doing this!)–we cannot read this without recalling a parable the Lord told about barrenness.
“A certain man had a fig tree which had been planted in his vineyard, and he came looking for fruit on it, and did not find any. He said to the vineyard keeper, ‘Behold, for three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree without finding any. Cut it down! Why does it even use up the ground?'” (Luke 13:6-7)
Why indeed? If we are not going to bear fruit for the Savior, why are we even here? Jesus said, “By this is My Father glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples” (John 15:8).
All of this raises a question…
QUESTION: What is this ‘fruit’ of which He speaks?
Listen to some preachers and you would conclude it’s one thing and one thing only: soulwinning. And unquestionably, that is one aspect of spiritual fruit. To assist another person into the Kingdom of God through prayer, information, and encouragement is one of the great privileges and blessings of the believer’s life.
But it’s not the only thing our Lord had in mind.
When we open our Bibles and listen to the Holy Spirit on this subject, we come to a much broader interpretation of ‘fruit.’
a) “Fruit” is Christ-like character in the lives of believers. See Galatians 5:22-23.
b) “Fruit” is good works. John the Baptist called on people to “bring forth fruit in keeping with (or fit for) repentance” (Matthew 3:8). We’re instructed to “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Colossians 1:10). See also Ephesians 2:10 and 5:9.
c) “Fruit” is making a positive difference in the lives of others, particularly those laboring in the Kingdom, whether by a gift or in person. “Even in Thessalonica, you sent a gift more than once for my needs. Not that I seek the gift itself, but I seek for the profit which increases to your account” (Philippians 4:16-17).
No doubt there are other ways we bear fruit for the Master.
What was it our Lord said about all this? “By their fruits you shall know them.” That’s Matthew 7:16, and no, it does not make us “fruit-inspectors,” as the old joke goes. Walking out into the pear orchard, one did not have to own credentials from the USDA to tell a rotten pear. It was–you will pardon the expression–stinking up the place and contaminating everything around it. One would have to have been blind not to have seen it.
II. What happens to the fruitful Christian?
“He prunes it.”
The pruning process is a simple one. Whatever is dead wood–merely takes up space, draws off nutrients for no purpose, bears no fruit–has to go.
It is no stretch to say the entire Christian life is a process of growth, fruitbearing, and pruning in order to produce more fruit.
Now, think of the implications of that….
1) What may have been “okay” for you as a young believer may now be forbidden. There is no mystery here. You are simply growing up in Christ. When you were a child, you spoke as a child….(I Corinthians 13:11).
2) What may be forbidden for you now may still be acceptable for someone else. All this means is that you two are at different levels of growth and fruitfulness. If you are foolish, you will condemn your friend and point to your spiritual superiority. Do that, and I suspect the Master’s pruning shears take dead aim at you! Better to mind your own business and keep your eyes on the Lord. (John 21:21-22 comes to mind here.)
3) The Lord pays you an immense compliment when He prunes your life. You are a genuine fruit-bearer.
4) The Lord may use a variety of ways to prune us. Persecution is one of His favorite tools. “So (the apostles) went on their way from the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name” (Acts 5:41). He may use His Word (see John 15:3), criticism, opposition, or a hundred other influences, few of which are pleasurable.
5) The glory of the Lord is the ultimate aim, not your pleasure. (John 15:8). If our highest goal in life is to be happy, we will have trouble following the Lord very far down the Galilean road. (That road, you will remember, ended at a terrible hill outside Jerusalem.)
6) We would do well to prepare young believers for the pruning to come. This means also that we should alert them to the danger signal which ‘no pruning’ would represent. After all, “the Lord chasteneth whom He loveth” (Hebrews 12:6). And conversely, “If you are without discipline…then you are illegitimate children and not sons” (12:8).
7) This is how godly old people come to be so godly and Christlike. They have walked with Jesus over the decades and been obedient even when the cost was high and the way was dim, and now their very existence inspires you. That is the promise of God’s word. “That…your faith, being more precious than gold, which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ….” (I Peter 1:7).